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Thinking About the Electoral College — Jordan Cash

Thinking About the Electoral College — Jordan Cash

The Electoral College is intended to be more than a simple proxy for the popular vote. Its primary function is to bring together two distinct majorities in presidential elections.

The Electoral College is intended to be more than a simple proxy for the popular vote. Its primary function is to bring together two distinct majorities in presidential elections.

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Maine and Nebraska are not generally considered swing states in presidential elections.

But because they are the only states that distribute their electoral votes by district, they may hold the key to victory in the 2024 election, which is likely to be won by a razor-sharp margin.

Yet in April, both Republicans in Nebraska and Democrats in Maine decided to change the way they distribute their electoral votes and prevent their states from splitting their votes.

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In Nebraska, Republicans — both inside and outside the state — have put significant pressure on lawmakers to change Nebraska back to a winner-takes-all system.

Maine Democrats responded by threatening to switch to a winner-takes-all system if Nebraska backed down, wiping out any advantage Republicans had hoped to gain. Yet Maine Democrats went a step further. They became the 17th state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Under this pact, a state ties its electors to the winner of the national popular election, regardless of how the state itself voted. Although the pact is not yet in effect, it is a way to bypass the Electoral College. Notably, all participating jurisdictions are predominantly Democratic.

Such moves make perfect sense from a partisan perspective, but they undermine deeper constitutional principles. They demonstrate that Americans need to think more constitutionally and recognize the basic purpose of the Electoral College.

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The Electoral College is intended to be more than a simple proxy for the popular vote. It is primarily intended to bring together two distinct majorities in presidential elections: the popular and the state majorities. It underscores the fact that the United States is, in the words of James Madison and other founding fathers, “partly national, partly federal.” According to the Constitution, the states should play a major role in presidential elections.

By forcing presidential candidates to appeal to these multiple and overlapping majorities, the Electoral College ensures that successful candidates have independence and legitimacy by being elevated by a broad national constituency. The Founders did not want a presidential candidate to win the popular vote in a few states or geographic areas.

Ignoring the Electoral College’s function to expand and legitimize presidential elections loses sight of its constitutional purpose and diminishes our understanding of our political institutions. Defenders of the Electoral College would find greater support by encouraging states to become like Nebraska and Maine, not the other way around.

By using different methods to allocate electoral votes, candidates are further encouraged to appeal to a broader national electorate. This will help to give greater prominence to partisan minorities in “safe” states and bring electoral vote margins closer to the popular vote.

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If every state had used the congressional district method in 2020, Biden would have won 51.6% of the Electoral College, nearly identical to his 51.3% of the popular vote. Such reforms would prevent the disenfranchisement that occurs in winner-take-all systems. It would also preserve the Electoral College’s basic functions of recognizing the states as important actors under the Constitution and orienting candidates to cultivate broad national coalitions.

Conversely, opponents of the Electoral College should consider how alternative plans would fit with the underlying logic of the Constitution. They might reasonably argue that they simply bring the presidential election more in line with the original, nationalist vision of the Founding Fathers and presidents who advocated popular elections.

In the same way that the 17th Amendment changed the method by which U.S. senators are selected—moving those elections from state legislatures to directly by the people—a shift to a national popular election for president could be seen as a logical next step, completing the democratization of our electoral institutions.

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There is nothing in the Constitution that dictates how states distribute their electoral votes. But if we want to improve our electoral system, especially when it comes to choosing our nation’s highest office, reforms must be driven by constitutional considerations, not partisanship.

Jordan Cash is an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s James Madison College and a fellow at the Jack Miller Center. This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs and made available on RealClearWire.